Tycoon's nurse charged with starting fatal fire

Published Dec. 7, 1999|Updated Sept. 30, 2005

A member of billionaire Edmond Safra's staff, a 41-year-old American man, is believed to have set fire to the penthouse as part of a dispute with a superior.

One of the wealthiest men in the world, billionaire banker Edmond Safra, lived like a man under siege in his Monaco penthouse with a Mediterranean view, protected by ultrasophisticated alarm systems and indoor and outdoor security cameras.

In the end, those high-tech precautions weren't enough to save the international financier from an unhappy American employee who seemed only to want to be a hero in his boss' eyes, Monaco authorities said Monday.

When the 67-year-old Safra died of suffocation from a fire that gutted his sprawling two-floor apartment Friday, speculation mounted that the apparent attack on the tycoon-philanthropist, the founder of New York's Republic National Bank, was the work of hit men from the Russian Mafia or another criminal gang.

The sole witness, one of Safra's nurses, told a horrific tale of being stabbed in the stomach and left thigh by two hooded assailants who broke in shortly before 5 a.m. and started the fire that destroyed the 10,000-square-foot rooftop residence.

The penthouse invasion sent a shiver of fear through the tiny seaside principality, a haunt of many of the world's wealthiest and most famous, where the last crime with a firearm reportedly took place in 1986.

The Riviera detective mystery initially puzzled Monaco authorities, but Monday they announced they had found the key _ not outside Safra's household, but inside. They said the global banker and businessman died because the American nurse, Ted Maher, 41, a former Green Beret from Stormville, N.Y., had a dispute with his superior and set fire to a pile of trash.

"He admitted to having set fire to a wastepaper bin to set off an alarm and then to having gone downstairs to raise an alert," Daniel Serdet, Monaco's chief prosecutor, said at a news conference.

"He did not intend to threaten Edmond Safra's life; he simply wanted to draw attention to himself in order to settle his differences with an employee of Mr. Safra's," Serdet said.

The bloodied 3-inch switchblade found in the apartment belonged to Maher, and his wounds were self-inflicted, Monaco authorities said. Maher would be arrested and charged with fatal arson, Serdet said.

Viviane Torrente, 52, an American nurse, died in the blaze along with the financier, who had been under medical care for Parkinson's disease.

Originally, Maher said that after being stabbed, he told Torrente to hide Safra in a bathroom and that he would go downstairs to spread the alarm.

Safra then apparently panicked, and, according to officials in Monaco, refused to leave his refuge even when his wife, Lily, implored him on his mobile phone to open the bathroom's bulletproof door. He apparently thought arriving firemen were the supposed assassins.

As flames engulfed the apartment, Safra also refused to allow Torrente to leave, Serdet said.

By the time firemen broke into the bathroom, Safra and Torrente were dead of toxic fumes.

An orthodox Jewish funeral service in Geneva's main Hekhal Haness synagogue on Monday assembled more than 700 mourners from the worlds of business, diplomacy and polite society.

Among those attending were Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and former U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

Swiss police with machine guns stood guard outside. Afterward, Safra was buried in a cemetery near Geneva.

Maher was placed in custody Sunday night in the Monaco hospital where he was being treated for his stab wounds, which officials said were not life-threatening.

Up next:East